While commencement season is just kicking into high gear, administrators at colleges and universities have already turned their attention to the fall, when a new crop of students will arrive on campus. But colleges and universities across the United States have struggled to meet enrollment goals for the last decade or so, partly the result of a dip in the birth rate, leading to cutbacks in faculty and staff. Catholic schools must also contend with how to market themselves to an increasingly secular applicant pool while trying to catch up to their secular peers in terms of financial resources. In many cases, their labor costs are also rising because fewer religious sisters, brothers and priests are available to fill jobs.
At Loyola University New Orleans, a “campus climate survey” commissioned by administrators last fall found that 64 percent of the faculty have “seriously considered leaving Loyola in the past year.” About seven in 10 in that group cited “institutional instability” as a reason to consider leaving, the report found, with some describing Loyola as a “sinking ship.”
According to The New Orleans Advocate, the survey was conducted in October, after the Jesuit university completed a round of layoffs, its fourth in as many years. The Advocate reported on April 10 that the school is searching for a new president who will inherit a budget gap of nearly $25 million and challenges meeting enrollment goals. But a spokeswoman from Loyola University later contacted America to say that the projected shortfall is $8.7 million. Laura F. Frerichs said the university has “a plan in place to balance our budget with no further draw on our endowment” and that the school expects an operating surplus by July 2019.
“We look forward to welcoming our first lay president, and feel confident that they will be leading a Loyola that is solid and strong,” Ms. Frerichs wrote in an email.
Similarly, administrators at St. Catherine University in St. Paul are considering laying off up to 50 faculty and staff to address a budget shortfall caused, in part, by a decline in enrollment of more than 6 percent from 2012, Minnesota Public Radio reported.
“We’ve all shed many tears because it wasn’t something we would like to do,” Susan Trelstad, head of the faculty senate, told the radio station. “But when we saw the numbers and started building models, we could see that, ‘Yeah, we have to fix something,’ because this isn’t sustainable and we want St. Kate’s to be here for our students.”
Meanwhile, The Catholic University of America, the only university in the United States with a papal charter, is proposing to reduce the size of its full-time faculty by about 9 percent according to The Washington Post, through a plan that could, in addition to buyouts and attrition, include layoffs. Overall enrollment has been on a downward trajectory since 2010, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, and the plan calls for faculty to teach more classes so that the university can cut about 35 positions. But a spokeswoman for the university told America that undergraduate enrollment increased in the last academic year and is “tracking up for next year.”
According to consultants hired by the university, how the school markets its Catholic identity may present challenges in trying to increase enrollment in order to close budget gaps. Some prospective students, the report found, perceive Catholic University to be more religious than its peer institutions, which may be a stumbling block to reaching enrollment goals.
“Students are open to having their experience enriched by Catholicism, but not necessarily defined by Catholicism," said Eric Collum, one of the consultants, according to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. "They want to go to college; they don’t want to go to church, necessarily."
Julia G. Young, a history professor at Catholic University, wrote at Commonweal that she fears the university is targeting a narrow segment of the Catholic population, which has, in part, contributed to the declining enrollment.
“At times it seems that the administration’s interpretation of Catholicism—and of who belongs in the Catholic Church—has narrowed considerably since I was an undergraduate,” she wrote. “If the [school’s strategic plan] is implemented as currently designed, this dispiriting scenario will only grow worse.”
Some prospective students perceive Catholic University to be more religious than its peer institutions, which may be a stumbling block to reaching enrollment goals.
Over the past couple of years, budget shortfalls have led to cuts in faculty and other staff at several schools, including the College of New Rochelle and the College of St. Rose in New York, Assumption College in Massachusetts, St. Michael’s College in Vermont and Aquinas College in Tennessee.
Melanie Morey, the director of the Office of Catholic Identity Assessment and Formation in the Archdiocese of San Francisco and the co-author of Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis, said that some Catholic colleges and universities that relied on religious orders for staffing face special challenges. Historically, they had not made fundraising a priority, so they do not have large endowments to sustain them through difficult financial times.
Many of those schools relied on a “living endowment” for several generations, Ms. Morey said, in the form of free labor from the Catholic religious orders that founded and staffed them. With many of those orders shrinking or even disappearing, expenses add up.
“Living endowments do not translate easily into monetary endowments, and making up for that takes time,” she said.
The question of Catholic identity
Heather Gossart, a senior consultant with the National Catholic Educational Association, told Inside Higher Ed last year that Catholic schools are facing the same challenges as other schools.
“A lot of our national data really indicate that some of these small Catholic colleges, as well as small private colleges throughout the country, are really struggling because of their finances,” Ms. Gossart said. She added that while many Catholic schools in the United States are thriving (there are about 250 in total), many others must seek “new and creative ways to recruit student populations and to create affordable tuitions” or risk shuttering.
The number of Americans who do not identify with religion has grown rapidly in recent decades, with young people leading the charge. According to the Pew Research Center, 36 percent of those born between 1990 and 1996 say they are religiously unaffiliated. In light of such changes, Ms. Morey said, religious institutions must consider how best to communicate their mission to prospective students.
“For the vast majority of students who go to Catholic institutions, the Catholic identity is not necessarily the thing that draws them first and foremost,” she said. “They want an academic setting that is appealing and that will help position them to flourish and do well.”
But Ms. Morey also said that schools should not run from their Catholic heritage. She said Catholic schools have a “value added” in their openness to exploring religious questions, which can be an appealing even to students who are uncommitted to a particular faith tradition.
Catholic schools have a “value added” in their openness to exploring religious questions, which can be an appealing even to students who are uncommitted to a particular faith tradition.
Rebecca Sawyer, a vice president at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, told America that she agrees that the challenges facing Catholic schools warrant action, but she pointed to a general upward trend in enrollment during the past 60 years. It is only recently that there has been a dip in enrollment at Catholic institutions, which appears to coincide with a dip in overall enrollment at colleges and universities. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, while the number of Catholic colleges has fallen, from 305 in 1965 to 225 today, total enrollment at Catholic institutions has increased steadily, from about 410,000 students in 1956 to about 765,000 students in 2017. Still, that number is down about 20,000 students from a peak in 2010.
“For every negative story there is out there saying enrollment has gone down, there’s a story on the opposite end saying enrollment has gone up,” Ms. Sawyer said. “It’s part of the normal ebb and flow of higher education.”
Federal projections estimate that overall college enrollment will continue to climb and that the peak reached in 2010 will be matched, and start growing again, in just a couple of years.
“For every negative story there is out there saying enrollment has gone down, there’s a story on the opposite end saying enrollment has gone up.”
Ms. Sawyer said some Catholic colleges and universities are considering ways to meet financial challenges through partnerships with one another and, in some instances, opening satellite locations in areas where the Catholic population is growing. In 2012, Benedictine University, located in the Chicago suburbs, opened an additional campus in Arizona, where population is growing at a rate double the national average. (Benedictine is in the process of closing another satellite campus located in Springfield, Ill.) A number of campuses, including Benedictine, were lured to Arizona by the City of Mesa, which had received grant money to address the need for more college opportunities for local residents. Results have been mixed for the institutions, Arizona Central reported in 2015, but Benedictine’s Mesa campus held its first graduation last year.
Colleges and universities that have lower academic rankings in publications like The Princeton Review and The Wall Street Journal, including Catholic schools, could lead to an increase in the number of closures.
According to an analysis published by The Wall Street Journal in February, U.S. colleges and universities are being sorted into “winners and losers,” with the top-ranked schools thriving while once-stable but lower-ranked schools facing sometimes insurmountable financial challenges.
“For generations, a swelling population of college-age students, rising enrollment rates and generous student loans helped all schools, even mediocre ones, to flourish. Those days are ending,” the article says.
At a meeting hosted by A.C.C.U. in Washington earlier this year, a higher-education consultant challenged administrators of small Catholic colleges to consider the futures of their institutions.
“I actually think there will be fewer institutions in 20 years,” Lucie Lapovsky said. “The smaller colleges need to ask themselves ‘Is our self-preservation really for the students or for the institution?’”
This story has been updated with comments and financial data from spokeswomen at Loyola University New Orleans and The Catholic University of America.
Correction, May 17: An earlier version of this story said that The Catholic University of America planned to lay off about 9 percent of its faculty. It has been updated to correct this error, noting that a proposed plan is to reduce the size of its full-time faculty by about 9 percent through a process that could include layoffs.